Dinner Party Physics: Health Care, Obama And Quantum Reconciliation : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture What quantum mechanics and relativity have to do with the health care debate, idealism versus pragamatism, heresy and absolutes, and why a kiss is still a kiss
NPR logo Dinner Party Physics: Health Care, Obama And Quantum Reconciliation

Dinner Party Physics: Health Care, Obama And Quantum Reconciliation

So, to bolster my argument that ideas from science (physics, specifically in this case) can help us come up with social inventions (policies) to make the world a better place, let me start with a dinner I had last night with some extremely smart and socially committed friends, dear to each other and miles apart not so much on issues, but on the value of untamed idealism versus pragmatics. Or to make it over simple: Should we vote for the health care bill even though it has been so torturously altered and watered down (water boarded perhaps?) that barely a hint of what we'd hoped for remains? Should we (have) voted for Obama even though we knew he wasn't going to be able to change the world (perhaps just baby steps), and is it legitimate to have voted for him simply because he was the lesser of two evils?

These are hard questions: Pragmatism requires that to some extent, we accept the existence of the "real world" as it is, and try to work within it, even if that means we may as collateral damage help to legitimize things we don't believe in (the "real world" as it is).

Idealism says, and I'm quoting Frank Oppenheimer here: It's NOT the Real World! It's a world we made up! Therefore, we have the power to remake it any way we like. The perceived exigencies of the so-called real world should never been an excuse for giving up the fight for world that is radically better. In fact, as he pointed out, if we don't make radical changes in our "real world," it's not going to exist much longer.

(Part of the reason are the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons out there — thousands in the U.S. alone on 'hair trigger' alert — each capable of vaporizing a city in a second. Strangely, they almost never show up on the list of "environment threats.")

So what's physics got to do with it? First, it allows two contradictory descriptions of nature to be true. So both my friends both could be (and were) right. As Neils Bohr put it: The opposite of a shallow truth is false, but the opposite of a deep truth is also true.

Particles are waves and waves are particles. Whether they show one face or the other depends on what you look for in your experiment, on what kind of question you ask. In other words, the context.

Each of my friends is a complex, warm, caring, passionate and much-loved individual. Each is also nothing but a bunch of quarks and electrons. Two contradictory statements. Both true. Different contexts.

To get a full view of any situation (and make good policy) we need all these perspectives.

Here's where special relativity comes in. The reason space and time are elastic is that the speed of light is invariant — it never changes no matter what. Einstein showed that the things we thought were absolute (space and time) were actually secondary properties of something much more fundamental — the speed of light. The fundamental things are those that don't change. (A kiss is still a kiss...) Physics is mostly about hunting down those invariants.

So what were the invariants — the fundamental truths and ideals — among my friends? Many. I'd venture to say: almost everything really important.

In general, I think we'd make more progress if we could accept (and it's not easy) that opposite legitimate points of view can both be right in the proper context, and opposite points of view are not heretical.

That, and try to keep our eyes on what's fundamental — the things we all share and value and that don't really change — even when they look wildly different (or even unrecognizable) in strange contexts.

As I said, a kiss is still a kiss. The fundamental things apply.